“Mama” – Still a staple of MacArthur Park

Sandi "Mama" Romero stands in front of her corn husk angel dress.

If anyone has spent even a little bit of time around MacArthur Park, then they know about Mama and her tamales.

Mama is Sandi Romero, and on any day you’ll see her wearing her traditional, Guatemalan embroidered blouse, and a bright colored cloth braided in her hair. She was first approached to run a tamale co-op in the late ’90s. She had never been to MacArthur Park, a quick car trip from her cozy home town in Pasadena. Curious, she took a trip to scope out her new neighborhood, and immediately felt like she was back in Baja, California.

“When you cross the border you just get this feeling because there’s so many people… just a lot of life,” recalls Romero.

When she walked through the park she realized it could also be a dangerous.

“It was like another world. I remember thinking this is only 20 minutes away from Pasedena. People were drinking out in the open, smoking pot, smoking crack, getting drunk, homeless encampment. It was just all over the park,” she says.

Romero pressed on and opened what is now known as Mama’s Hot Tamales. The co-op and restaurant lets local residents use her kitchen for their own catering businesses as a way to support their families. Today, she has a rotating list of men and women that make tamales with recipes from their home countries. Her restaurant faces the park on the south side. Her window has a direct view of the lake and a grassy field favored by loiterets. She recalls the early days looking out that window.

“The park would be full of cops and the yellow tape because I’d find out later there was a shooting or a drowning in the lake. And I just remember thinking, where is law enforcement, ya know?” says Romero.

Romero joined other community leaders in what she gallantly calls “taking back our park.” Police installed cameras in the park for constant surveillance. Romero got the city to remove parking in front of her restaurant where people were sleeping in their cars. Then she created the “sidewalk café.”

“That was our way to push out the vendors that were hanging out there, the people that were smoking drugs, and just sitting out there doing nothing but bothering us.”

Currently, street vendors are allowed to sell food on the sidewalks, just not in the park. Some are critical of Romero’s insistence on regulating vendors in the park. They say she’s taken away jobs from them, and food from the community, to push possible patrons into her restaurant.

Rocio Ramirez

But Romero’s colleague Rocio Ramirez disagrees. She immigrated from Alcopulco, a region in the south of Mexico. Her first six years in the U.S. were a struggle, as she was living in government housing.

“It was a very bad neighborhood. I had an autistic kid, an abusive husband, and dreams of changing my life.”

Ramirez met Mama who made her dreams come true. She got her GED, became a citizen, and now runs “MITA,” Mama’s International Tamales Organization. The organization has since branched out to South Central, opening a co-op in a growing Latino community in south Los Angeles.

“We have guys that were on probation looking for jobs. They were on drugs and alcohol. They didn’t have options. So we have about 10 guys that work with us now.

Back at Mama’s Hot Tamales in MacArthur Park, Romero has plans on expanding the restaurant, but not outside MacArthur Park.

Today when Romero looks out her window, she sees a peaceful park. It may not be perfect, but it feels like her own.

 

Ramirez and Mama sit down with some customers.

 

A chef prepares tamales for the restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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